Last reviewed 8 January 2021
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal suggests that people with epilepsy could have a slightly increased risk of being admitted to hospital or dying from coronavirus.
The study does not show whether epilepsy itself causes this increased risk, or whether the risk is linked to other factors that could affect people with epilepsy. For example, people with epilepsy may be more likely to be in residential care, have visits from carers or have other conditions alongside their epilepsy. These things could increase their risk of catching or being more severely affected by coronavirus.
This small increased risk does not mean you need to shield, unless your doctor has advised you to. But it is important to keep yourself safe by following guidance on social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a face covering if you are able to.
Do people with epilepsy have priority to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has issued advice on who should have priority to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The advice says that people aged 16-64 with epilepsy should be included in one of the priority groups. The priority groups are:
Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
All those 80 years of age and over
Frontline health and social care workers
All those aged 75 and over
All those aged 70 and over
Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (not including pregnant women and those under 16 years of age)
All those aged 65 and over
People aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk. People with epilepsy are included in this group.
All those aged 60 and over
All those aged 55 and over
All those aged 50 and over
I'm an unpaid carer for someone with epilepsy. Do I have priority to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
The JCVI says you should be prioritised for the vaccine if you receive Carer's Allowance, or you are the main carer of someone elderly or disabled whose welfare would be at risk if you fell ill. If either of those things apply to you, you will be in group 6 (see table above).
This applies to carers aged 16-64. If you are aged 65 or over, you will be in one of the higher priority groups due to your age.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for people with epilepsy?
So far, thousands of people have been given a coronavirus vaccine and reports of serious side-effects, such as allergic reactions, have been very rare. The vaccines approved for use in the UK have met the strict safety standards set by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). We are not aware of any safety concerns for people with epilepsy.
We know that some people are concerned about whether a vaccine would interact with their epilepsy medicines. We put this question to the MHRA, and they told us the risk of a vaccine interacting with any medicines, including epilepsy medicines, is very low. This is because vaccines work in a different way to conventional medicines.
If I catch coronavirus could it trigger a seizure?
Some people with epilepsy are more likely to have a seizure when they are unwell, particularly if they have an illness with a high temperature (fever). Fever is a symptom of coronavirus, so this could trigger seizures for some people with epilepsy.
The best way to protect yourself from having a seizure is to keep taking your epilepsy medicine as usual throughout any illness. If you do get a fever, the NHS says you can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to help bring your temperature down. Both are safe for most people with epilepsy, but check with your pharmacist that they don't interact with your epilepsy medicine.
For most people with epilepsy, a seizure is not a medical emergency and does not need hospital treatment. However, if you are at risk of status epilepticus, make sure you have an up-to-date emergency care plan from your epilepsy specialist. This should tell you and the people around you what to do if you have a seizure and when to call an ambulance.
Are face coverings (face masks) safe for people with epilepsy?
Most people with epilepsy can safely wear simple cloth face coverings. A face covering made of breathable material should not cause any harm if someone is wearing one during a seizure.
Some people have told us they are worried about face coverings making it harder to breathe or making them overheat. There is no evidence that this is a problem with the type of face coverings recommended for the general public, made of breathable material.
If you find that wearing a face covering makes you feel uncomfortable or anxious, it’s worth trying different ones to find one that’s right for you. The gov.uk website has advice about what counts as a face covering. You could also try wearing a face covering for short periods of time at home first, to get used to the way it feels.
If you have other conditions as well as epilepsy and are worried these may affect your ability to wear a face covering, you may wish to check with your doctor. Or you could get advice from a charity that specialises in your medical condition.
Do I have to wear a face covering?
There are some places where, if you can wear a face covering, you must wear one by law. These places include on public transport and shops. You can find out more about the rules in different parts of the UK on the government websites:
Evidence shows that wearing a face covering may help stop the spread of coronavirus to others. So it’s important to wear one if you can.
There are some exemptions to the rules. For example, you do not have to wear a face covering if doing so would cause you severe distress. If you are unable to wear a face covering there is no requirement to prove you are exempt. But if you would prefer to show something, the gov.uk website has printable exemption cards.
I’m worried about catching coronavirus at work but my employer says I have to go in. What can I do?
Depending on the part of the UK you live in and the type of work you do, your employer may be able to ask you to come to work. However, they should take steps to protect you at work and make sure your workplace is safe. The different governments of the UK have each issued guidance on working during the coronavirus pandemic:
Your employer should tell you what steps they are taking to keep you safe at work. If you don’t feel safe being at work, talk to your employer about your concerns. In some cases, they may be able to help you work from home or make other reasonable adjustments. If you don’t feel they are doing enough to make the workplace safe, you can report this to your local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.
Standard medicines used to treat seizures, known as anti-epileptic drugs, do not suppress the immune system.
A small number of people who have epilepsy as part of a syndrome or other medical condition, may be prescribed medicines that can weaken the immune system. These include steroids and everolimus, a medicine taken by some people with tuberous sclerosis complex. If you are taking these medicines, speak to your doctor for advice.
The Department of Health and Social Care is working with drug companies to minimise any impact of coronavirus on drug supplies. Drug companies have already built up stockpiles of medicines in preparation for Brexit and have now been asked to maintain this level of stockpiling. This should mean medicines will continue to be available, even if there are temporary disruptions to the supply chain. If we find out about any shortages of epilepsy medicines, we will post these on our Drugwatch webpage.
If your child has epilepsy alone and no other health conditions then they are unlikely to be at increased risk from coronavirus. In general, children appear to be less severely affected by coronavirus than adults. But if your child has complex epilepsy or other conditions alongside their epilepsy, you may wish to ask their doctor or epilepsy nurse for advice.
You’ll need to stay at home and not leave home for any reason (self-isolate) if you or someone you live with:
- Has symptoms of coronavirus
- Is waiting for a coronavirus test result
- Has tested positive for coronavirus
You'll also need to self-isolate if you've been told to by the NHS Test and Trace service.
The NHS has issued advice about self-isolating including how long to stay home for. In addition, if you have epilepsy it’s a good idea to think about:
Getting food and medicine
While self-isolating, you should arrange for food and medicine to be delivered to you, or ask friends, family or neighbours to collect it for you. Check with your local pharmacy if they offer a medicine delivery service. If you usually collect your prescriptions from your doctor's surgery, you could ask if they can be sent electronically to a pharmacy of your choice instead.
If you need help getting food or prescriptions while self-isolating, here are some sources of help:
- Covid-19 Mutual Aid has details of local volunteer groups
- Your local council can put you in touch with volunteers in your area
- The Scope website has information about food delivery services
- NHS Volunteer Responders can help with delivering shopping and medicines. Call 0808 196 3646
Keeping in touch
If you live alone, keep in regular contact with friends, family members or neighbours while self-isolating. You could ask them to contact you regularly by phone or text to check you are ok. This is especially important if you have uncontrolled seizures.
Look after your emotional wellbeing
You may be feeling anxious about coronavirus or your epilepsy. Our information on wellbeing may help. You can also find information about looking after your wellbeing and coping with anxiety related to coronavirus from Mind and Anxiety UK.
Neuropsychologists Professor Gus Baker and Professor Steven Kemp have written an article on surviving the COVID-19 pandemic from a psychological perspective.
Epilepsy Action would like to thank Dr Rhys Thomas, Honorary Consultant in Epilepsy and Intermediate Clinical Fellow at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, for his contribution to this information.